David Leo Rice Interview
Reading David Leo Rice is akin to rolling your eyes backwards and finding an ancient codex etched into your brain. The writing feels unstuck from time and place, but also eerily in tune with today’s peculiar zeitgeist. His latest release Drifter collects a decade’s worth of stories. Rice’s work is impossible to classify. Straddling somewhere between metaphysical horror and absurdist comedy, the fictions in Drifter are disquieting, unnerving, and weirder than the weirdest issue of Weird Tales. Naturally, I’m a huge fan.
In our conversation below, Rice offers insight about his creative process. We discuss confronting the unknowable, channeling existential dread, and the adventures of a talking chocolate bar.
Drifter is available from 11:11 Press. Read Rice’s short story “Sanity House” from our Winter 2020 issue here.
I want to start off by going way back. Can you recall the first short story you ever wrote as a kid?
My earliest writing memories are of collaborations with my best friend. We wrote tons of scripts for real and imaginary movies and plays, and some prose pieces that were probably more like fragments of an unrealized novel. We also had a story series called something like “Tom and the Talking Chocolate Bar.” I can’t remember what happened in it, just a general sense of giddy adventure when we’d write together, always longhand, with lots of crudely drawn pictures mixed in. The first “real” story I remember writing was in ninth grade. It was a dystopian futuristic tale called “The Veterans’ Club,” about a group of veterans from a war that none of them could remember. When the story opened, they were marooned in a blighted wasteland—apparently the war had been lost, though even that was pure conjecture. Most of the story followed their daily struggle to survive, while always feeling that there was some larger presence they couldn’t outrun. At the very end, it becomes clear that this presence is suicide. I remember being really proud of the last line: “They had decided not to refill their oxygen tanks.” It’s kind of cheesy in retrospect, but something about how, at the time, that line seemed to fulfill the latent promise of the whole story came as a revelation, and sparked a quickening mood in me, while writing it, that I still try to cultivate today.
You should totally write an updated version of “Tom and the Talking Chocolate Bar” and send it to Ligeia!
It could be a sinister tale where it turns out that the chocolate bar has been talking, on and on, ignored for years, until an adult writer named Tom stumbles upon it and has to respond to whatever it’s been saying. Perhaps, as a means of grounding its own unwanted consciousness in an origin story, the chocolate bar compels him to back-project memories of having conjured this story as a child, so that all of his memories of having dreamed of being a writer when he was young become contorted through that narrative. Perhaps his sole artistic achievement—so he thinks—is to build a narrative framework around the otherwise inexplicable presence of this talking chocolate bar, claiming it as a product of his youthful imagination even if the truth is much darker. I’ll definitely write that story.
I can see a story like “The Veterans’ Club” planting seeds for the terrain you cover in your mature work—dystopian futures, blighted landscapes, distorted memories. The stories in Drifter span a whole decade’s worth of material. I remember first stumbling across one of your pieces in Black Clock back in 2012. How was the experience of revisiting work from the distant past? Do you see an evolution or progression in terms of your writing?
In general, the experience of revisiting older work is like that of the hypothetical Tom: I’m always trying to hear what the older (or younger, depending on how one sees time—the work seems old, but the self seems young) version of me was straining to express, and if there’s any way that I can apply what I’ve learned about myself, and about writing, in the intervening years to better bring out what’s in an older story, without changing it to reflect my current worldview. This is a tricky balance, I found, because I did want to polish every story here in as “contemporary” a way as I could, so that the collection as a whole would read like the product of my 2020/2021 self, but at the same time I wanted to preserve the essence of the stories, which, as you mentioned, date back to 2012 and even before. I hope the collection, when read as a whole, will serve as a record of the changing mental states during this very bizarre decade, both my own mental states and perhaps everyone else’s, as well. Looking back on the 2010s, I feel lucky to have come of age as a writer during years of tremendous flux in the real and narrative worlds we share, and I think my approach to the weird, the horrific, and the uncanny has evolved, by necessity, as the decade wore on.
In a more technical sense, one major trend in my work over that decade has been to continually refine my relation to the ineffable and the unspeakable. I want my stories to hint at realms of reality beyond what can be known, but, at the same time, I want them to be vivid rather than vague, and tangible rather than overly fluid. Maybe this is a way of saying that I’ve fought an internal battle between accessibility and inaccessibility, trying to get the right balance between concrete external expression, and numinous internal mystification.
This battle has been the most exhilarating—and sometimes maddening—aspect of the process behind all these stories, each of which appeared at a different point along the way. And I think it also relates to larger trends in the decade in question, with the sense that somehow reality was getting away from us, collapsing into an infinite array of pseudo-realities, while, at the same time, the feeling that genuinely significant changes were going on kept intensifying. I therefore hope these stories succeed in conveying the sense that something major is afoot, but we can never say for sure what it is (and anything we do say might, by default, be a distraction).
For me the stories in Drifter definitely capture the zeitgeist of the past decade. Crumbling landscapes, infectious paranoia, hostile mobs, inexplicable transformations, people being manipulated by forces beyond their comprehension. The ever present unknowable, as you mentioned, seems to be what your writing hinges on. I do think you strike the right balance between ambiguity and explicitness. Even at their most surreal, another unsettling aspect of these stories is how they still feel eerily plausible, like they could be playing out in some forgotten corner of the country as we speak. What’s your approach to keeping a story grounded when venturing into far out terrain?
The stories in Drifter grew out of this unremitting feeling that something unknowable is almost within reach, but it can never quite be known, nor can our sense of its presence be suppressed to the point where it no longer calls out to us. It’s like Mitch Hedberg’s joke about how maybe all the photos of Bigfoot are blurry because Bigfoot himself is blurry—the sense that we’re confronting something intrinsically blurry resonates with the condition of the new millennium, where we never get any resolution either way: we never lose the perception that something bizarre is afoot, nor do we ever find out (in a way that feels durable and legitimate) exactly what it is… which must be why so many lurid and conflicting explanations keep cropping up.
Drifter evolved along with this condition as an attempt to embrace and even celebrate its ambiguity, and to find pathos and excitement in the state of sensing (it’s hard not to overuse this word) that something beyond the knowable is true, and is potentially happening nearby, in another town or part of the country, as you put it. Another aspect of this feeling, for me, is an internal ambivalence between, on the one hand, hoping that something wild and life-changing is about to break through, while, on the other hand, hoping that a semblance of predictability and security will prevail. The whole Covid saga has exemplified this conundrum, in that people seemed torn between a giddy excitement at the prospect of radical change and an understandable but in some ways atavistic desire to just “go back to normal” at any cost. Maybe my effort to hone my writing practice is a means of embracing rather than resisting this ambiguity: I’ve felt that if the stories themselves were sufficiently concrete, I could accept that my desire for concreteness in the outside world would never be satisfied, and that in some ways this might be a positive adaptation for the world we’re surely still heading into.
From a narrative point of view, I always try to ground the stories by starting with an intimation that grows out of a real time and place. I travel as much as possible and try to marinate in a wide variety of atmospheres, never directly looking for stories, but rather letting them emerge, almost like a natural resource. I approach the world with the conviction that all places are haunted in their own way, so if you just sync up to these hauntings, and let them speak to you, the stories almost write themselves. In this way, I hope, a core of reality refracts through the more fantastical and symbolic aspects of the fiction, helping it express in a more overt form what’s already latent in our everyday world.
I was consistently amazed by the striking originality of your stories. A housesitter plagued by a giant tongue, a boy swimming through jello into a new dimension, an old man volunteering to ride a euthanasia rollercoaster. Even you just riffing off the cuff about a talking chocolate bar is compelling! I like what you said about letting a story organically emerge rather than consciously searching for one. Where does that initial spark for a story come from? An image? An experience? A line? Or do you just wake up one day and decide, “I’m going to write a story about the Brothers Squimbop!”
I’m not sure if this is a particular literary theory or just a general piece of wisdom from the ages, but I’ve always loved the idea that every good story has some combination of literal observation and metaphorical twist—it’s the synthesis of these two modes that gives rise to the story and lets it take shape as a piece that’s distinct from the larger flux of thought and imagination. My process with novels vs. short stories is different, because I think of the novels as environments that I’m slowly exploring and building out, whereas the stories I tend to envision more or less completely before I start working (even if they change along the way). But the central idea of conception occurring when an observation collides with a burst of imagination holds true in both cases. The notion of sudden inspiration may be true in a perceptual sense, in that I do often have the experience of a story seeming to emerge out of nowhere, but the reality, I suspect, is more that a new idea is making contact with a seedbed of older ideas, and finally activating them to the point where they can cohere into a story, rather than languishing as disconnected inklings without a central metaphor.
Speaking of seedbeds, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of seediness, both as a type of real environment and as an aesthetic mode to work in. A seedy place or scenario feels almost pregnant, in the sense that these potent seeds are lying around, but they haven’t quite taken root yet, for whatever reason. My approach to writing is thus to first notice the seeds through observation, and then induce conception through some imaginative intervention—whatever spark had been missing. Then, once this pregnancy has begun, the story develops in what feels like a natural way. Its final form is already latent within it, so the effort of writing feels more exploratory than generative, though this may be another metaphor to describe something that’s otherwise too abstract to pinpoint. One way or another, my goal with any given piece is to become increasingly passive, in the sense that, as it develops, I want to feel more and more like I’m feeding something that’s determined to become whatever it’s going to be, rather than actively deciding what that is.
Another huge source of observed inspiration is dreams, which for me function in the same way: they yield seedy images, personages, and situations, but then the waking labor is to find a way to incorporate these into a form that somebody else can sync up with and enjoy, which often requires exploding them and trying to consider more lucidly what’s inside, since in a dream these essences are obvious, while in waking life, they never quite are. This process fails if the reader feels like they’re just experiencing my dream (everyone knows how boring it is to hear someone else tell you about their dreams), while it succeeds if the reader feels like the story is inducing their own dream. This is a line that I’m always aware of, because I believe that dreaming consciousness can be experienced while awake, but the means of accessing it are very different than when we’re asleep. It comes for free at night, but during the day it has to be earned. This is the active part of the writing process, before the more passive part can begin.
I’m glad you touched on the dreamlike quality permeating Drifter. The word “induce” is apt because I often felt strange shifts in my own consciousness while reading the book. Often it was akin to a waking nightmare, like sleep paralysis. Or a really fucked up fairy tale. I found more often than not the stories were seriously unsettling. “The Hate Room” and “Circus Sickness” in particular got under my skin. There’s a potent sense of existential dread throughout the collection, punctuated with supernatural/cosmic horror undertones. What’s something that scares you in real life and how do those fears bleed into your work?
Great to hear it got under your skin, though sorry for any unwelcome effects that may have had! I definitely think of horror as an ingredient in whatever I’m working on. For me, horror is a means of coming face-to-face with the real, in the sense that horror, like humor, is an effect that can’t be faked—if something scares you, or makes you laugh, it’s a genuine response because it involves a recognition that something true, often uncomfortably so, is being articulated. It reaches us beneath whatever we’d like to think, or like to be seen as thinking, and thus might be considered a dubious or primitive effect, but it derives tremendous power from the access it has to these base parts of us. Like sexual arousal, fear is involuntary, working on a level that our conscious minds can’t control.
This notion of tunneling under the conscious mind to touch on whatever lies beneath is part of how I try to subvert my own thought processes while writing, in order to attempt to make contact with a realm of cosmic horror that I “know but don’t know,” in the sense that it’s always there, but I can’t always say what it is. Cosmic horror is a key component of what I hope to get out of fiction, because it involves uncovering unwelcome facts about the basic nature of existence, facts that perhaps all of human culture and even consciousness itself function in order to cover up (and that we thus can never knowingly pinpoint). If circumstantial horror involves something going wrong within an otherwise stable system—a slasher stalking a summer camp, for example—then cosmic or existential horror involves something going right—the universe revealing its perfect, hidden nature, which may have nothing at all to do with what we, as humans, would like to imagine it is. For me, this zone is far scarier and more creatively compelling.
I was discussing the stories in this collection with my father recently when he said, “None of these characters quite have what it takes to be alive, but their saving grace is that they sort of know this.” That struck me, and resonates with your question about what scares me in real life, and how it bleeds into my work: what scares me is the fear that the life we’re living, if we’re even the slightest bit content with it, is a sham covering some much bleaker truth, which we can sort of perceive but don’t want to look at. All of my work is marked by an ambivalence about whether, if we can sense this possibility, we ought to stare right at it—the climaxes of many of these stories involve, as my father pointed out, characters coming briefly into contact with a dark truth they can witness but never change—or if looking away as long as possible is actually the nobler path. When I was younger, I would have insisted that staring down this truth is the essence of courage, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe trying to be happy despite its presence is where true courage lies.
In my daily life, I value comfort, coziness, and routine. I’m a total creature of habit, and I love to feel safe and secure wherever I am. Nevertheless, I’m always aware, either dimly or vividly, that something else may be going on underneath, eating away at the foundations of my contentment, and therefore defining that contentment as a defense mechanism against the unspeakable. As a focal point for these fears, books mediate both aspects. On the one hand, they’re a source of great comfort: I associate books with fresh coffee, morning sunlight, and a comfy chair, while, at the same time, the most harrowing depths of horror, degradation, and ferocity that I’ve ever plumbed have also been accessed through books. This duality is what I’m always trying to touch on when I write, hoping to feed back into my own unresolved sense about the nature of books by producing more of them.
In a much broader sense, I feel this ambivalence about all of art, because it’s a fundamental component of what we call culture, even as it yearns to express the possibility that culture is no more than a society-wide attempt to hide from ourselves the burden of horrifying knowledge—of death, of nonbeing, of the vastness of the universe and our tininess within it—that we are all condemned to carry. Maybe denial vs. acceptance is one of the key themes that I’ll explore throughout my life.
Your point about the dichotomy of books being a source of comfort and unease is spot on. I think Drifter captures that juxtaposition. A lot of the stories exist in the uncanny valley. There’s something familiar but it’s twisted in a way that catches you off guard. The apocalyptic superstore in “ULTRA MAX.” Tourists idling beside an impossibly huge beached whale in “Out on the Coast.” A plague of suburban suicides in “Sandman Crescent.” Reading these stories, I kept thinking, “This is what America is going to be like in the future.” Your work reflects much of the decay in our society. Do you feel like you’re writing in the face of a dying empire? How can art help us navigate these strange times we live in?
That uncanniness about books as a response to the world is always on my mind: the uncertainty about whether channeling an all-pervasive sense of unease and impending doom into fiction is a means of engaging with those forces, or of pushing them away. I remember as a teenager having the thought that writing was the only means I could imagine of making myself a “moving target,” in the sense of developing an active, dynamic back and forth with my impressions of the world, rather than just letting them slam into me and grind me down. I did karate a lot during those years, and there we learned that you should never be too rigid or too limp, but rather always fluid and adaptable to the situation around you, while maintaining an inner commitment to balance: that ethos probably informed my sense of how fiction can channel and respond to the world as much as anything else did.
In terms of whether we’re living in a dying empire, that’s another lingering question from this past decade. Last year I started an essay series called “Unworkable Equilibrium,” which tries to interrogate the seemingly paradoxical state in which—in America, anyway—we’re surrounded by an atmosphere of impending collapse, even as the relatively safe, consumerist lifestyles of many millions of people continue uninterrupted (so much so that the narrative of collapse is itself sold back to us as another consumer option). This relates back to the question of fiction’s place in the world, insofar as there’s a growing disjunct between what we might call “narrative” and what we might call “reality,” to the point where it grows almost impossible to say which is which, and to track how and where they diverge. Perhaps, then, sources that call themselves “fiction” have a unique opportunity to tell truths that other sources, claiming to tell the truth, no longer can.
Overall, I feel agnostic: it seems certain that America as a dominant world empire is in decline, but whether a definitive crash will come in the next few years or the next few centuries is still hard to say. On the planetary level, I’ve always been interested in apocalypticism as a cultural force, which, so far, manifests as disappointed apocalypticism, in the sense that many cultures, throughout history, have predicted the end of the world without its yet arriving. There’s something innately human about yearning for our own deaths to coincide with the death of everything, and a sense of deep FOMO in the fear that the world will go on without us. Also, apocalypticism is a grandiose manifestation of the desire for the supernatural to emerge from the banal: to see the signs of decay and decadence around us come together into a spectacular finale, rather than just wearing down and down and down. It’s a search for redemption in that regard.
As we live on in this interim, maybe all we can do is embrace what’s around us, even while knowing that it’s both degraded in quality and finite in duration. In stories like “ULTRA MAX” and “Out on the Coast,” the characters are immersed in signs of collapse—a dead landscape populated only by superstores, or the corpse of an impossibly large whale—and yet the inner drama for these characters involves dredging up the ability to love those things, and to witness them as beautiful and fulfilling, despite the awareness of how gruesome they are in the present, and how bad an omen they are for the future. That might be the best summation of where my thinking stands, in terms of what lies ahead: by many metrics, things don’t look good, and yet the only viable response I can see is to celebrate what’s still here, seeking to find whatever remains spiritualized within it. My hope is that this—as a means of seeing the world, and hence also of generating fiction to feed back into it—is a workable middle path between denial and despair.
As a writer who’s been in the game for a while now, what advice might you offer to someone trying to break into publishing? What do you wish David Leo Rice had known ten years ago that you know now?
I remember reading an interview with Rudy Wurlitzer where he said, “All a writer can do is pray for patience.” I like the idea that patience might be something external to you, a power you can pray to be granted but can’t generate on your own. That rings true. If I think now of my own advice, as I look back on this decade, two ideas come to mind. The first is to probe your own insecurities and ambivalences, trying to find something genuinely unresolved in yourself that may also expand into a deeper irresolution in the time and place you live in, since this will connect you to your readers. If art is always about accessing the universal through the specific, then the best way for a writer to access the universal is to drill into the specifics of their own uncertainties, fears, and doubts about the world they inhabit, striving to see themselves as both a unique consciousness and also, in profound and disturbing ways, a generalized example of consciousness itself—this is the ground that, if anyone wants my advice, I’d say is most worth exploring.
Secondly, I think it’s crucial to ask yourself what’s good and powerful in your work, as it develops. In my experience, aspiring writers are often really hard on their actual work, while nurturing a kind of overarching dream of themselves as good and exalted in a hypothetical future. This is the dream of being a writer, rather than the tangible process of writing a book. There’s nothing wrong with this dream per se, but the only way to approach it in reality is to locate that sense of excitement and pride in the pages you produce. When I edit a draft of a project, I’m certainly hard on it, crossing out many lines and making notes about what needs to improve, but I also look carefully for which passages do manifest my ideas about what my writing should be, and put big check marks or smiley faces next to these parts, so I can, over the years, train myself to generate more of this, and less of everything else. Here too, the key is modulating between the general (I want to be a writer) and the specific (this paragraph is good, even if the next three aren’t).
If I could speak across time to my younger self, I’d tell him all of this, and also, most importantly, I’d tell him to just keep going, to do the work rather than not doing it. That’s the only solid ground I know of, and you can’t persevere along this path if you don’t keep both feet solidly upon it.
David Leo Rice is a writer from Northampton, MA, currently based in NYC. His novels include A Room in Dodge City, A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 2, Angel House, and The New House, coming in 2022. Drifter, which came out in June, is his debut story collection. He’s online at: www.raviddice.com.
by Michelle Champagne
... I knew I was haunted by the time I left college ...
reviewed by Matt Lee
... I finished the whole damn book in one go ...